Did the family of John Wilkes Booth miss the warning signs?

In the novel “Booth,” Karen Joy Fowler illuminates the family and the milieu that produced John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. 

"Booth" by Karen Joy Fowler, Putnam, 480 pp.

“What’s past is prologue,” Shakespeare wrote in “The Tempest.” It’s a particularly apt citation for Karen Joy Fowler’s new novel, “Booth,” about the family of Junius Brutus Booth, one of the most famous Shakespearean actors of his time – and the father of John Wilkes Booth, the incensed anti-abolitionist who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre in Washington on April 14, 1865. 

Of course, the line is also an apt motto for a writer who is well aware that the best historical fiction helps us recognize connections between the past and present, and see both afresh. The pre-Civil War political landscape evoked by Fowler in “Booth” abounds in implicit parallels with today’s polarized society, including the breakdown of civility in Congress and beyond, and attempts to block voters’ rights. Lincoln’s warnings concerning the tyrant and the mob ring loud and clear in the wake of the events of January 6, 2021.   

Zora Neale Hurston memorably wrote that “Research is formalized curiosity.” Solid research mixed with empathetic imagination enriches “Booth.” Fowler, best known for her novels "The Jane Austen Book Club" and "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves," was drawn to the Booths when she found herself wondering about families of recent mass shooters and the horror, shame, and regrets they might feel. She explains in an author’s note that she emphatically did not want to focus on John Wilkes Booth, “a man who craved attention and has gotten too much of it.” Yet she acknowledges that we would not be reading about the Booths if their favorite son hadn’t assassinated America’s 16th president. 

The challenge, Fowler writes, was to focus on the time, people, and circumstances that produced this man, rather than on the assassin himself. To this end, she weaves an engrossing tale of a family of thespians so steeped in Shakespeare that for them, “all the world’s a metaphor.” Fowler’s narrative is packed with drama, both onstage and off, long before John Wilkes Booth’s heinous act. But there’s no getting around the fact that the assassination overshadows the novel as it artfully – but slowly – builds to what we know is coming. 

The action begins in 1838, the year of John Wilkes’ birth, on the hardscrabble farm outside Baltimore that Junius and Mary Ann Holmes have occupied since they fled England and his first marriage in 1821. Over several decades, against the drumbeat of a clearly delineated timeline, the narrative rotates between the tight third-person perspectives of three of the six Booth children who lived to adulthood: the never-married oldest daughter, Rosalie, who is haunted by the deaths of four of her siblings; the talented, dreamy-eyed Edwin, who succeeds his father as a renowned actor and the family’s primary breadwinner; and the headstrong younger daughter, Asia, who out of misplaced loyalty to her adored brother John, fails to sound the alarm about his slide into radicalism. They’re all vivid characters.

The book is filled with the vicissitudes of touring actors’ lives. Fowler captures the brilliant patriarch’s erratic behavior, exacerbated by alcoholism, a condition shared by several of his offspring, including John. Offstage drama includes the unexpected appearance of Junius’ long-ago abandoned first wife, who declares Mary Ann’s children illegitimate. There is also a harrowing passage across the Isthmus of Panama en route to California. In more flush times, the family moves from the farm into increasingly lavish city homes in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.  

Through it all, there’s a dark strain of dissolution and insanity, but also a firm conviction held by most of the family that slavery is evil. A moving side story concerns the hardworking, freed Black man who manages the Booth farm, determined to earn enough money to buy the freedom of his wife and children from a neighboring slaveholder. John’s white supremacist attitudes are attributed to the influence of several boarding school classmates from Southern, slaveholding families.    

Fowler intersperses the family’s saga with brief glimpses into Lincoln’s choppy road to the White House and into the crosshairs of enraged anti-abolitionists. These historical interludes provide welcome background on what was going on in the country while the Booths were absorbed in pulling off their umpteenth performances of “Richard III” and “Hamlet.” In one such chapter, Fowler describes Lincoln’s forceful, extemporaneous speech against slavery at the 1856 convention where the Republican Party was being formed. Fowler writes that two years later, despite the political risks, Lincoln reiterated, “this time for the ages – ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’” 

Indeed, that’s a worthy takeaway from this stirring novel. One thing that strikes us repeatedly in “Booth” is how united Junius’ offspring were in their pride and protectiveness of the family name – until John’s infamy destroyed it forever.

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